Hats Off: Heat Printing Headwear

Learn the tricks to heat printing on headwear in this step-by-step article found in Printwear May. 

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Growing business beyond T-shirts is important for many shops. Consider the opportunity for packaging a collection of branded items for a client versus a singular item. A display of a T-shirt, hat, and bag is undoubtedly more lucrative than a T-shirt alone. Whether launching a spirit sale for a school, selling on-site at an event, printing for a local company, or selling to consumers at retail, the demand for accessory items is prevalent. 

Arguably, the most lucrative of all accessory items for a heat printer is headwear. Hats come in many shapes, styles, and sizes making them an incredibly versatile offering as well. They are a staple in nearly any market, from sports to corporate to fashion. Plus, they are extremely easy to make with the right tools and techniques. 


To start, a hat press is essential to printing headwear with speed and accuracy. Hat presses feature a curved heating platen and lower platen that allows a print to wrap around the crown of the hat without wrinkling.

The process for loading a hat onto a press for printing is simple:

Step 1: Flip the sweatband out and place the opening of the hat around the lower platen.

Step 2: Pull the hat tightly against the lower pad to ensure even and equal contact. No void areas between the hat and the pad should be present.

Step 3: Lock down the hold down device to keep the hat in position during heat transfer placement and application.

Step 4: Place your transfer and press your hat for the recommended time, temperature, and pressure of the transfer you’ve selected.

The process is very simple, but not always perfect. The nuances of hat printing are many but can be addressed with the proper knowledge.

                     heat pressed hats

Left: The underbill print area is popular as an added customization zone for name drops, photos, and patterned fills. It is common that a flat-bill hat be embroidered on the crown and heat printed under the bill.

Right: To heat print a design from crown to bill, a forgiving heat trasnfer vinyl that can be split into multiple application steps is necessary. (Images courtesy STAHLS’)


The first, most obvious challenge in printing hats is that hats come in many shapes, styles, and sizes. The crown of the hat, or the area that covers the head between the bill and the top of the hat, varies from style to style. An operator will quickly find that a trucker style cap will load differently than a more fitted baseball cap, which will load differently than a low-profile cap.  For this reason, a good hat press will have interchangeable lower platens that can be swapped out to find a perfectly flat printing surface with no gap between the print location and the lower platen. Hat platens range in size from a very small 2″ X 2″ print surface to a larger 4″ X 8″ print surface. While we’d all like to get the maximum print area, it’s not always possible due to how the cap wraps and loads around the platen. 

                 heat pressing headwear

Interchangeable, threadable platens make it easy to decorate a variety of different cap styles and locations. (Image courtesy STAHLS’)

With a proper platen selected and flat printing surface, now we must examine a little more about the hat structure. Structured hats typically have a fused buckram and can be more difficult to print versus a soft, unstructured hat. When printing hats with a fused buckram, decorators will often notice a crease after application towards the top of the application area. There are typically two factors that cause this: too much temperature or too much pressure.

Since headwear typically won’t be laundered, it is possible to “break the rules” of your typical heat transfer setting to achieve an application at the lowest possible temperature and pressure. This adjustment will also help to prevent scorching on acrylic hats that are challenging to decorate. Knowing this, it is important to select a transfer style that is versatile. Often, the transfers and materials recommended for performance textiles, footwear, and the like are the best for heat-sensitive headwear.

                 heatpressedhats 0

Place your transfer and press your hat for the recommended time, temperature, and pressure of the transfer you’ve selected. (Image courtesy STAHLS’)

One of the big benefits of hat printing with a heat press is that we need not worry much about whether the hat is five- or six-panels. Heat printing over the center seam of the hat is tremendously easy and requires no special tools, except maybe some thermal tape to hold your design in place. In addition to worry-free front placement, accommodating different print locations on a heat press is easy to execute as well. Spin the hat 90-degrees to print either side or 180-degrees for a back-print location. And while there are special platens for printing flat bill caps, a standard hat press will do the job on curved bills. Simply lay the bill flat against the platen of choice and support the hat with one hand or a cardboard jig while heat printing. 

Innovative decorators take this versatility one step further by applying a seamless decoration from crown to bill. This process requires a transfer such as heat press vinyl that can be forgiving enough to be split into multiple application steps. First, position your design and trim the transfer slightly at the crown to the bill seam so that it falls nicely from the application area. While either the bill or the crown can be heat pressed first, it’s easiest to press the crown and then remove the hat to print the bill. This process will require less handling and risk in loading the cap within the structure of the press after one area is printed. When combined with the range of special effect heat press vinyls, the results of this application are unrivaled.

While the most popular decorating technology for headwear is embroidery, heat printing headwear receives strong consideration for its versatility, throughput speed, and cost efficiency. And as a bonus, the hat press is also commonly used for sleeve printing, tagless labels, and more.


Allee Bruce

Allee Bruce is the managing editor for GRAPHICS PRO magazine, aiding with the publication's digital and print efforts.

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